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Balkans Without Borders

Donald Trump's election as U.S. president was initially greeted in Serbia with excitement.

Politics in the Balkans operates on its own timescale. NATO air strikes against Serbia may have taken place 18 years ago, but reading the newspapers in Belgrade, one could be forgiven for thinking that they happened only yesterday. The past is here to stay.

Ignoring the argument that the 1999 NATO bombardment was provoked by the brutal actions of the Serbian police and military in Kosovo -- a campaign of ethnic cleansing akin to those conducted by ex-Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina -- the majority of Serbia's population is convinced that it was unprovoked and unwarranted. "The West does not like us" is a dominant refrain among Serbs, and it is sustained by media outlets like Russian Sputnik radio, broadcasting in Serbian since January 2015. (Sputnik's main task appears to be to remind Serbs of who their friends are, and who the enemy is.)

After NATO's intervention, Serbian troops were forced to withdraw from Kosovo, and the former autonomous region of Yugoslavia declared independence less than a decade later, in 2008. Kosovo is now recognized by 114 countries, but each step taken by the young nation on the road to membership of international institutions is met by Serbian obstruction. The Serbian Constitution still describes Kosovo as an integral part of Serbia.

The change of administrations in the United States gave rise to hopes that newly elected President Donald Trump would return Kosovo to Serbia. With Serbia already enjoying close relations with Moscow, Serbian nationalists appeared to believe that presumed signs that Trump might be interested in a rapprochement with President Vladimir Putin boded well for their agenda. During the U.S. election campaign, Serbian Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj took to wearing a Trump T-shirt and frequently praised the Republican presidential candidate. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, was regularly demonized in Serbian tabloids as an extension of Bill Clinton, who was U.S. president at the time of the NATO bombardment.

Some Serbs even clung to the idea of Trump as a "Balkan son-in-law" owing to his marriage to Melania Trump (nee Melanija Knavs), who was born in Slovenia, once part of the former Yugoslavia. The connection, that narrative went, would boost his attachment to the region, and to Serbs in particular.

Serbian Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj took to wearing T-shirts supporting Donald Trump.
Serbian Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj took to wearing T-shirts supporting Donald Trump.

But early signs of continuity in U.S. policy in the Balkans have come as a shock to many Serbs. The first hint at disappointment came over the decision to extend sanctions originally imposed by the Obama administration against Milorad Dodik, the president of the Serb-dominated Bosnian entity Republika Srpska.

The measure was a response to Dodik's perceived violation of the provisions of the Dayton peace agreement -- the U.S.-brokered treaty that ended four years of fighting but divided Bosnia into Republika Srpska and the Bosniak-Croat federation -- in connection with the holding of a referendum in defiance of a Constitutional Court ban.

The Serbian press also sounded the alarm over incoming Defense Secretary James Mattis's response to a question about U.S. troops' presence abroad. At his confirmation hearing, Mattis said a reduction of U.S. force in Kosovo would be possible only once Kosovo was capable of defending itself. That was interpreted as a green light for the creation of a Kosovar army, which unleashed public outrage in Serbia. Adding salt to the wound in Belgrade, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said that Kosovo should take its place as a full member of that international organization.

An additional blow to Serbian hopes that the Trump administration might somehow favor them was dealt by a photo of the new U.S. president with the speaker of Kosovo's parliament, published on Kadri Veseli's Facebook page.

Even routine exchanges of diplomatic courtesy, such as the congratulations sent to every head of state on the country's statehood day, are interpreted by media in Belgrade as signs of special favor. Thus President Trump's letter of congratulations to Kosovar President Hashim Thaci on the occasion of Kosovo's independence day prompted headlines asking whether this meant the end of all Serbian hopes and expectations.

It is not so long ago that Serbian expectations were so high that there was serious speculation as to whether Trump might even seek to return Kosovo to Serbia.

Such heady optimism might have influenced political decisions, too. The EU-sponsored dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina was seemingly put on ice. Even negotiations over technical details like a separate country code for telephones in Kosovo dragged out for more than a year, until December 2016.

On a lighter note, Serbian hopes that the Trump administration would reverse long-standing U.S. policy in the Balkans were reflected recently in a satirical message of welcome riffing on Trump's "America First" slogan and a viral trolling trend begun in a "Netherlands Second" video.

In a Serbian version of the popular spoof, the key to the new friendship with Washington is a mutual admiration for Putin. And instead of touting "Serbia Second," the video urges Trump to make "Russia Also First...and Serbia First After That." The odds of either of those approaches ever becoming reality might never have been high, yet many Serbs suggested that Serbia was about to profit from a grand bargain struck between Trump and Putin's Russia. "Serbia is the only country in the world, besides Russia, that truly, truly loves you" was one of the messages in the video. But that collective notion might prove increasingly hard to sustain if the affection no longer appears mutual.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
A man waves an Albanian flag next to a banner of former Kosovar Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj during a protest staged by Kosovo war veterans' associations in support of the ex-guerrilla commander who is currently being detained in France.

Warnings that another conflict may erupt in the Balkans have been coming in from former diplomats and think tanks in recent weeks.

Most recently, there is concern that the prolonged detention of former Kosovo Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj in France may trigger a wave of protests in Pristina.

Neighboring Macedonia is facing a potential constitutional crisis as the president continues to deny a mandate to form a government to a political leader who appears to have a parliamentary majority in hand.

Serbia would like to be seen as a rock of stability in the region, but it currently finds itself on the worst terms it has had with its neighbors since the end of the cycle of Balkan wars (1991-99).

In Montenegro, October's elections were marred by a purported coup attempt that may have had Moscow's backing (although those allegations have never been proven). Meanwhile, its pro-European government faces a boycott by the pro-Russian opposition as Montenegro stands on the brink of NATO membership.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, wartime objectives from the 1990s have become peacetime political projects. The country is bitterly divided, not least over the desire of some -- mainly among the Bosniak majority -- to revisit a 2007 international court ruling that cleared Serbia of genocide charges related to the 1992-95 war. Bosnian authorities have been unable to find a unified voice on the issue, and members of the country's three-member presidency are sending conflicting messages to the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

'A Frying Pan Full Of Oil'

All these brewing disputes led one outsider to predict that the first international crisis to face the new U.S. administration of President Donald Trump would crystallize in the "rumbling Balkans."

Such a warning is more extraordinary when it comes from an EU official.

In an interview with Zeit Online, the EU commissioner for neighborhood police and enlargement talks, Johannes Hahn, said that stabilizing the Balkans is in Europe's interest. He added: "We will either export stability or we will import instability. This applies especially to the Western Balkans, which is like a frying pan full of oil. All it needs is a match to light the fire. However, an enduring peace in that region is possible that would provide these countries with an EU future."

Jelica Minic of the Belgrade-based NGO European Movement In Serbia expressed agreement with Hahn's observation. Minic told the RFE/RL Balkan Service's Belgrade bureau that four risk factors could produce a spark to light the fuse in the Balkans. In her view, the tipping point could be ethnic tensions, social unrest, the migrant crisis, or meddling by foreign powers in the region.

Minic also pointed to an article by former U.K. diplomat Timothy Less in Foreign Affairs calling for a redrawing of national borders in the Balkans, lending support to longstanding nationalist projects. The projected new "map" of the region would include a Greater Croatia, Greater Serbia, and Greater Albania. The article proved popular among nationalists of all stripes. The British Foreign Office made it clear that Less does not represent the views of the British government. Nevertheless, Russian Sputnik radio's Belgrade outlet has quoted an analyst arguing that Less's opinion piece is proof that "the West is undermining the Balkans." In the same article, Bosnia is referred to as a "quasi-state."

Foundations 'Not Secure'

Speaking to RFE/RL's Balkan Service, Ukrainian Ambassador to Bosnia Aleksandr Levchenko highlighted Russian influence in the region.

"It appears that the destabilization of this region [Bosnia and the Western Balkans] is in the interest of [Russian President] Vladimir Putin," Levchenko said. "It would create an opportunity for him to present himself as the peacemaker. This is the usual script -- he manufactures a conflict and then offers to negotiate with the West on conflict resolution."

Minic sees tensions on all sides -- between Serbia and neighbors Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Macedonia, between Croatia and Bosnia, and so on.

European Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Han (file photo)
European Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Han (file photo)

Johannes Han has expressed concern in particular over ongoing tensions between Kosovo and Serbia. Responding to a question from Zeit Online on whether European-integration processes have been stuck in reverse lately, given that the specter of war was explicitly invoked during the most recent dispute between Serbia and Kosovo, Han replied: "That only proves my assertion that even though each country in the region has made progress, the foundations are not secure yet by any means. One wrong word can lead to conflict."

Han nevertheless said he remained convinced that responsible parties in Serbia, including Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, "are well aware that there is no alternative to a European orientation if they desire peace and prosperity."

However, the prospect of EU restructuring based on a proposed two-tier model -- with one tier pursuing closer integration and the other remaining in a looser union -- raises questions about the place of Western Balkan countries in any new order. Specifically, whether that new model for the EU would speed up or slow down the integration of those countries -- a question that is currently impossible to answer, according to Minic.

WATCH: Serbian Nationalists Chant During Federica Mogherini Speech In Parliament

Serbian Nationalists Chant During EU Speech In Parliament
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The warnings of regional fragility might ensure that the Western Balkans remain a focus of attention in Brussels. Federica Mogherini, the EU foreign affairs and security chief, is currently on a tour of regional capitals spreading a message about the importance and value of an EU future. It is a sign that Brussels recognizes the danger of leaving the Balkan region to its own devices, with tensions on a knife-edge.

And yet the worrying signs persist.

As Mogherini addressed the Serbian parliament on March 3, her words were met with chants from back-bench lawmakers: "Serbia, Russia, we don't need the [European] Union!" Throughout, the Serbian Radical Party deputies were pounding the tables, and their leader, Vojislav Seselj, declared it the beginning of his presidential campaign. Presidential elections in Serbia are scheduled for April 2.

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About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.

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